OTTUMWA — What happens when students set the classroom rules? Cardinal Middle School has been giving it a try for the last two years, and the results might be surprising.
The school has been using a unique classroom management model called “Capturing Kids’ Hearts,” which was developed by Flippen Education.
“It helps our teachers make sure we’re consistent in the way we talk to kids and the way we handle situations,” said Cindy Green, principal of Cardinal Middle School. “But it really covers way more than that. The heart of it is building relationships with kids.”
At the heart of the model is what Green called a “classroom contract” or “classroom agreement.”
“It’s more like a contract and agreement we’re making together as a class, instead of having things you absolutely have to do,” said Lindsay Albert, a seventh and eighth-grade english teacher at Cardinal Middle School. “So it makes the kids take ownership a little better, which I think helps with our classroom management.”
Students don’t start the first day of school with a clear list of classroom expectations. In Albert’s room, the first week is used to get to know the students, develop trust, and to start building relationships. Writing the classroom agreement only begins once an attitude of mutual respect and trust has been established.
“They come up with a list of words they would like to see on the social contract. Then we share those words out as a group, and we start brainstorming. So if they say ‘respect,’ okay — what does respect look like? Give me an example of that in the classroom,” Albert said. “So we actually define what those words are instead of just saying okay, this is a word we’re throwing out there. If the whole class agrees that it’s a good word, we put it on our contract.”
Albert doesn’t even physically write her list. Instead, she appoints a designated student scribe to draft the contract. Once it’s been agreed upon and written up, the contract is signed by all the students and hung on the wall.
Staff at Cardinal received training in the system in 2017, and staff who arrived later were given a crash-course by school administrators. While the individual lists of rules might vary room to room, students can expect a consistent model throughout the building.
But even with variations between teachers, Green said the students are remarkably consistent with the expectations they come up with.
“Every class may have a little different social contract or shared agreements,” Green said. “But ultimately, without fail, kids always put the ones on there we want on there: be respectful, be responsible, no disrupting.”
There are three rules that never change in Albert’s room: students have to demonstrate effort, they have to listen, and they can’t use any put-downs. Apart from that, everything that goes on the list is up to the class.
There are also a few common techniques teachers apply throughout the building. If a student is acting out, they are pulled aside instead of being reprimanded in front of their peers. One of the most interesting techniques they use is a series of questions asked to misbehaving students.
“It directs it to more student-led thinking, and reflection on their behavior,” Albert said. “The first question is, ‘what are you doing?’ Our goal is that they actually say what they’re doing. ‘What are you supposed to be doing?’ ‘Are you doing it?’ They should be saying no, if you’re asking these questions. Then, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ Typically that redirects them right to it.”
“With teens, you can’t put their behavior on display,” Green said. “Sometimes that will just escalate the situation. So handling things in a private way just next to them keeps it regulated and de-escalated.”
All teachers at Cardinal Middle School are expected to engage with their students on a personal basis. Mondays usually begin with students sharing what they did over the weekend for their class, which Green said helps facilitate conversation between students as well. Teachers also make a point to make eye contact and greet every student as they enter the classroom.
“It’s that classic first-impression type of scenario,” Green said. “Kids should be able to see the teachers and interact with them in a positive way before class even starts.”
Flippen Education claims the technique produces concrete, measured results. Studies cited by the company suggest students instructed in the “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” model see their standardized test scores raise by an average of 11 percent.
Cardinal’s own figures seem to show an effect as well. Green said that from 2018-2019, office referrals were down 20 percent.
Albert, who has had experience teaching at other schools as well, said an established classroom-management system makes it easier for teachers just starting off. Green also suggested parents could use similar techniques at home.
“It’s brought us all on the same page,” Green said. “Everyone’s speaking the same language, where in the past, you might have one teacher who handles things a different way. So the way we talk to kids is the same. Our expectations are the same. And that’s super important with teenage kids.”